Even as Mormon faithful prepare to bury their prophet Saturday, they're looking ahead to a new era with Thomas S. Monson at the helm of their 13 million-member church. Hinckley's longtime friend and confidante, Monson is known as storyteller and empathetic leader who knows the church's hierarchy from the inside out. A longtime longtime participant in interfaith activities, he is a strong advocate for the church with Utah's civic community, observers say.
Thomas S. Monson and billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. spent months anticipating their annual fly-fishing expedition to the Snake River in June 2003, even as Idaho Mormons faced one of the driest seasons on record.
After they donned their waders, grabbed their gear and pushed into the water, the heavens dumped a pile of snow on them.
Monson, first counselor in the LDS First Presidency, turned to his disappointed partner and said with a wry smile, "Jon, never doubt the members of the church when they pray for moisture."
Stories such as this reassure Mormons who wonder whether the next president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will share the humor and humanity of Gordon B. Hinckley, who died Sunday at 97.
Will Monson, who is likely to become the 16th LDS president, continue Hinckley's outreach to other faith communities? Will he travel as widely? How will he deal with the world's media when they ask tough questions?
Despite being an LDS leader since he was 36, the 80-year-old Monson has worked in the shadows of his charismatic predecessor. He is known for homey parables about helping widows during the Depression or being a bishop in the 1950s, but what else?
Monson is an affable, open-minded leader who was an ally in interfaith activities, said Archbishop George H. Niederauer of the Catholic Diocese of San Francisco.
"Whenever we had questions or concerns about the community, we would walk down to his office," said Niederauer, Utah's Catholic bishop until February 2006. "He always made time for us."
John W. Gallivan goes one step farther in describing Monson's outreach.
"More than being tolerant of persons of other faiths, he abides by the golden rule of 'Live and let live,' " said Gallivan, retired publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Gallivan tells how Monson once rode the Concorde, the supersonic plane capable of crossing the ocean in a couple of hours. Upon deplaning in New York City, every passenger received a gift - a half pint of whiskey.
Other Mormons might have poured it down the drain, as drinking alcohol is against the LDS health code. But Monson took it straight to Gallivan.
"He said he was sure I would get more use of it than he would," the newsman said.
Gallivan worked alongside Monson for 30 years as partners in Newspaper Agency Corp., the company that handles advertising, production and distribution of the Tribune and the LDS Church-owned Deseret Morning News. Monson represented the Deseret News at the time and the two never quarreled about business, Gallivan said. "Tom Monson is a man of integrity possessed of a great sense of humor. It's a sense of the eternal fitness of things."
Monson was always well-prepared, thorough and organized, added Bill Smart, former editor of the Deseret News when Monson was its general manager. "He has a fantastic memory, which served him well - sometimes, too well. You had to be careful that what you said was correct. If not, it would come back to bite you."
Smart added that Monson was always empathetic and a good manager.
Emma Lou Thayne, a Mormon poet who sat on the newspaper's board with Monson for 17 years, agrees.
"He mostly got along well with people. He likes people a lot and that shows," Thayne said. "It gets returned to him."
Whenever an issue about women or families troubles Thayne, she goes to see her old pal and ends up spending two hours when she intended a 10-minute chat.
"He remains open to my ideas," she said.
Thayne, however, said Monson will operate differently than Hinckley did. "His background is in business, which is how he is oriented."
In addition to being a fishing buddy, Monson also has been Huntsman's partner at Jazz games and one of his best friends.
The two became close in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan appointed Monson to serve on the President's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, on the interfaith committee. At the time, Huntsman, the founder of a worldwide chemical conglomerate and father of Utah's governor, was serving as an LDS mission president in the Washington, D.C., area.
"I worked closely with President Monson and with all other religious leaders, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish. They all liked and respected his leadership," Huntsman said.
Huntsman believes Monson will continue Hinckley's legacy of reaching beyond Mormonism's borders.
"He's as comfortable at the Cathedral of the Madeleine as in the [LDS] Tabernacle," Huntsman said. "He finds comfort in all faiths, encourages and inspires leaders of all faiths. [During his presidency], we will see a tremendous interaction with leaders of other denominations around the world."
No one can predict exactly where Monson will take the church, which programs he may change or implement, what tone he will adopt, or what his unique contribution will be.
Stuart Reid, a one-time Democratic candidate for Slat Lake City mayor, speaks for many Mormons when he calls Monson "an enigma."
"I have a feeling - and it's just a feeling - that he may break out," Reid said, "and be a very dynamic president, perhaps more so than we have had in the past."